The upcoming Texas legislative session will begin on Jan. 10, and election legislation will be a large priority. The Voting Rights Lab, a nonpartisan voting rights organization that tracks election policy, said there are a total of 75 bills already pre-filed for the upcoming session. 

Establishing an Election Marshal

Both SB 220 & HB 549 relate to establishing state election marshals to investigate potential voting violations. 

Last November on Election Day, Harris County ran into several issues, including ballot paper shortages, long lines, and malfunctioning voting machines. Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) wrote this bill to establish an election marshal to prevent instances like this in the future.

“We have to have the ability to not only audit problems but try to prevent them,” Bettencourt said. 

“The bottom line is, what an election Marshal does is allow the Secretary of State to send somebody to hopefully prevent a problem from occurring, as opposed to having to have a lawsuit,” he continued. 

Some have drawn comparisons between SB 220 and recent legislation in Florida that created an election police. Bettencourt acknowledged similarities between the bills but posited the one he authored would be more effective in reducing election mishaps. 

“We’ve lost the ability to recognize the obvious in this frothy debate about election politics in the country. We have to remember that things still have to get done. You still have to have equipment. You need election judges. You have to have ballots, and all that it has to work under the laws of the state that you’re in. And really, what this job does, is help people recognize the obvious,” he continued. 

Online Voter Registration

Several pre-filed bills (SB 92, HB 1145, HB 1070, HB 675) would allow eligible voters to register online. 

“(Online voter registration) has been implemented in 40 states and seen great results,” said Veronikah Warms, a legal fellow with the Texas Civil Rights Project. 

Currently, eligible voters in Texas must print out a form, fill it out and mail it to the relevant county election office. A completed voter registration form must be received by the office 30 days before an election. 

“Folks do everything online,” said Liz Avore, Senior Policy Advisor for the Voting Rights Lab. “It’s a lot easier to register to vote if you could do it from your computer… It expands access to our democracy to people who are eligible to vote.” 

Raising the penalty for casting a ballot if ineligible 

Currently, if someone who is ineligible to vote casts a ballot, they could be charged with a misdemeanor. If SB 166, pre-filed by Texas Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), passes, the penalty would be raised to a felony of the second degree. 

Several similar bills filed by Texas representatives, including HB 52, HB 222 and HB 397, relate to raising the penalty for illegal voting. 

Expanding the attorney general’s authority to prosecute elections crimes 

HB 125, pre-filed by Texas Rep. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City), would allow the attorney general to issue penalties of up to $25,500 to local officials if they fail to enforce any election laws, including prosecuting election fraud. 

There is also HB 678, filed by Texas Rep. Keith Bell (R- Forney), which allows the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate instances of election violations. 

 “(There are) bills that are designed to increase the attorney general’s authority to prosecute election crimes in the state,” Avore said. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has made efforts to unilaterally gain the power to prosecute election crimes, saying local authorities do not do enough to stop election fraud. In September, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld a ruling that says the attorney general must get permission from local prosecutors to pursue election crimes, such as election fraud, according to reporting from the Texas Tribune. 

“We’re seeing now legislation that is really kind of designed to test the limits of that ruling. And to see just how far the Attorney General’s prosecutorial authority around election crimes can stretch,” Avore said. 

Accommodating voters with disabilities 

HB 296, pre-filed by John Busy (D-Austin), would make voting more accessible for people with disabilities.

This bill adds to the legislation that polling places must have two parking places for people with disabilities, accessible entry points and expanded access to mail-in ballots.